Sunday, June 30, 2013

Branson Joins Planetary Resources

Sir Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group and the power behind Virgin Galactic, has joined the core group of investors of Planetary Resources, the company planning to mine asteroids for water and other natural resources.

Branson is the latest billionaire to get involved with PR, which plans to launch its first asteroid hunting mission next year.  With luck, those billionaires will help lead humanity into a new economic era of plenty.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Shuttle Runway

The nearly three mile lomg runway at Kennedy Space Center that space shuttles used to use in landings may be used again.

NASA is turning the runway over to the State of Florida, which in turn plans to use it to attract commercial space ventures to the Space Coast.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Japanese Space Robot

Japan will soon be sending a small talking robot to ISS.  This particular robot is designed to carry on conversations, only in Japanese, read the emotions of its human interlocutor, etc., but it can only interact with one man, who will also be flying to ISS later this year.

Whatever the limitations of this first model, Japan argues this effort will be the beginning of a human-robot partnership that will be essential in deep space missions.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

PayPal Galactic

With the announcement of a new initiative called PayPal Galactic, PayPal is beginnung the process of thinking through how people who are living in space for extended periods will maintain control of their finances.

The company acknowledges the problem is a dexade or more away, but argues it's not too soon to begin planning to handle it.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Shenzhou 10 Home

China's Shenzhou 10 and its crew of three landed safely today, ending a successful 15-day mission.  All the main goals of the mission seem to have been met, extending Chinese space capabilities.

Shenzhou 10 thus extends a remarkable human record.  Objectively, spaceflight is perhaps the most dangerous, unforgiving activity humans do, and lives have been lost during launch and re-entry into the atmosphere.  Yet, after more than fifty years of human spaceflight, in various spacecraft, no one has died in space.  That's an incredible testament to what educated, dedicated men and women can achieve.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Possible Life Triple Play

Gliese 667C is a smaller, dimmer star than the Sun, part of a triple star system 22 light years away.  It is, therefore, fairly ordinary-- except it may host life.

Astronomers have found three super Earths orbiting within the star's habitable zone.  That's three potential places for life to have arisen around a single small star.

Monday, June 24, 2013

China To The Moon

China, according to reports, is planning to launch its first rover to the Moon later this year.  A second rover mission will follow.

China also plans a sample return mission from the Moon before 2020.  All this in preparation, some China watchers say, to an attempted Chinese manned lunar landing in the 2020s.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Choke Points

Theorists argue relatively few civilizations will ever reach the stars because most will fail to successfully navigate through certain choke points-- overpopulation, environmental degradation, economic collapse, thermonuclear war, and others.  There are probably some we haven't even considered yet.

Human civilization is now confrontuing several of those.  An aggressive move into space to tap new resources, use new gravitational regimes, develop the technology base, deepen our understanding of physics and biology and other disciplines, and greatly, quickly expand the human economy could produce a vastly more wealthy society.  That, in turn, would provide more options to policymakers as some of those choke points loom.  The development of a private sector space industry holds promise for expanding the economy and creating those options, but whether humanity will ultimately reach the stars is still an open question.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Lone Signal

A new website allows anyone to write a nessage that will be beamed via radio signal to a nearby star.  It's called Lone Signal.  The first message is free, but subsequent ones will cost you.

Of course, the Lone Signal folks have no more idea where ET is than anybody else, but they intend to target nearby stars that scientists say could support life.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Pount-To-Point Travel

A few European firms are looking at entering the human suborbital flight arena, though none are as far along as American companies like Virgin Galactic and XCOR.  One, Swiss Space Systems, is also taking a different approach.

S3 is developing a manned suborbital system, but it intends to focus on serving the research market, not space tourism.  It also wants to develop point-to-point travel on Earth, allowing people to fly anywhere on Earth within an hour.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Ganymede Lander

The European Space Agency is planning a mission to explore Jupiter's large ice-coated moons Callisto, Europa, and Ganymede, and Russia is planning a mission to put a lander on Ganymede.  Talks are now underway to see if those missions can be combined, or at least cooperate with each other.

Joining the two together would be expected to save money, and it could also increase the science return.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Andromeda's Black Holes

The Andromeda Galaxy is the most distant object regularly visible to the naked human eye, at roughly two million loght years away.  Now, using the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, astronomers have found 26 new black holes in Andromeda, bringing the total so far discovered there to 35.

Like many, if not most, galaxies, Andromeda has a supermassive black hole at its center, so astronomers have expected to find many, smaller black holes there, too.  Those found so far are probably only the beginning.

Monday, June 17, 2013

New Astronauts

NASA has selected eight new astronauts-- four men and four women.  They will be added to the 49 already in the astronaut corps.

Witth any luck, some or all of this new class will fly deep space exploration missions-- to an asteroid, to the  Moon, or possibly even to Mars.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Valentina Tereshkova

Fifty years ago today, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova launched into space, becoming the first woman in space.  It was her only mission.

The early Soviet human spaceflight program emphasized firsts-- first man, first woman, first two man crew, first three man crew-- to score political propaganda points.  It came at a cost, however.  By doing such missions for political reasons instead of focusing on the step-by-step development of spaceflight capability, the Soviets lost their lead in manned space sooner than they might have.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

503 More

NASA's Kepler planet hunting spacecraft is currently out of commission, but by going over data already collected scientists have found 503 more possible exoplanets, bringing Kepler's total to well over three thousand.  Some of the new finds orbit within their star's habitable zones.

Scientists say they have enough data to go through to continue making discoveries for two more years.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Plastic As Radiation Shield

One of the major remaining problems in seriously planning deep space human missions is protecting the crews from radiation.  Plastic, coupled with reducing flight times, might do the job.

Lab experiments have shown that plastic is good at blocking harmful radiation, and now NASA has data from its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that plastic is a good shield in deep space, too.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Double Star Life

New work suggests that planets orbiting double stars might have a small edge when it comes to supporting life.

It seems that closely matched stars that orbit each other in between 10 and 30 days tend to cancel out each other's solar winds of deadly radiation, thus making rocky planets in the system's habitable zone more likely to develop life.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Fusion Rockets

NASA is looking at various propulsion technologies that would drastically cut flight times for human missions to the planets.  Perhaps the most promising of those is a rocket powered by nuclear fusion.  Such a rocket could take humans to Mars in one month, or to Saturn in two.

Of course, we can't yet build fusion reactors even on Earth, but NASA is hopeful a fusion rocket research program could lead to breakthroughs.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Shengzhou 10

China launched its fifth manned space mission earlier today.  Shengzhou 10 has a three person crew and was launched atop the most powerful yet used for a Chinese manned flight.

Shengzhou 10 is scheduled to last 15 days and include two dockings with the Tiangong 1 space station module-- one automatic and one manual-- as China continues to develop the capabilities needed for more challenging future missions.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Armstrong's Words

There is still research into and debate about exactly what Neil Armstrong said as his first words while standing on the Moon-- as if that were consequential.  Did he say one small step "for a man," or "for man?"  The most recent analysis of the transmission suggests he got the "a" in there, but his Midwestern American accent had him slurring words a bit.

It's amazing what some people will fuss and fight over.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


A team of scientists is proposing to build a huge telescope-- twice as large as the current biggest on Earth-- to search for the heat signatures of advanced technological civilizations out to about 70 light years away.  They reasonn that such civilizations use huge amounts of energy and therefore generate prodigious quantities of waste heat.  That heat could be observed by a sufficiently telescope.  The team calls the telescope Colossus.

Estimated cost of Colossus is $1 billion, and it could be built in five years.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Opportunity Still Producing

Lately, most of the attention given to NASA's Mars rovers has gone to the big new kid on the planet, Curiosity.  However, the older, smaller Opportunity is also still producing.

In fact, Opportunity has recently made what could be its biggest discovery yet.  It has found clay that formed in interaction with low pH water-- essentially, water we could drink.  That's another strong piece of evidence that Mars was habitable within its first bilion years.  So far, there's no firm evidence of Martian life, but if life ever arose on Mars, it could have had a nice long run.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Creating Life

Scientists have long theorized that comets brought water, and perhaps the precursors of life, to the early Earth.  A new study, however, suggests comets may have had even more to do with the creation of life.

The study finds that the impact of a comet on Earth releases energy that transitions simple molecules into a higher state of complexity.  That complexity can lead to life.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Oceans Everywhere?

Scientists using Cassini data see similarities between Saturn's moons Enceladus and Dione.  They see similar ridge structures on both worlds, and while Dione lacks the dramatic geysers of Enceladus, Cassini has detected wisps coming out of Dione.  So, they're wondering-- if Enceladus has an ocean of water inside its ice shell, might Dione?

Indeed, some are beginning to speculate that subsurface water oceans may be common features of small worlds in the outer Solar System-- from some of the moons of the giant planets to Pluto to even the giant asteroid Ceres.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Life Around Dwarfs

Scientists have concluded that while it's possible that white dwarf stars and brown dwarf failed stars could host life-bearing planets since they do radiate heat, it's extremely unlikely.  The heat they give off is feeble, declines over time, and could be in the form of lethal radiation at times.  There are also gravitational tide issues since the planet would need to be so close to the dwarf.

While such systems may not be the place to look for native life, they might serve as outposts for any star-hopping civilizations that might be out and about.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Smallest Stars

Scientists have finally calculated the smallest a true star can be.  The lower limit turns out to be a diameter 8.7 percent of the Sun's radius.

That fits nucely in nature.  Observationally, it falls between red dwarf stars and brown dwarves, which are failed stars.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Stronger Case For Lunar Water

Using data from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter accumulated over years, scientists are strengthening the case that water ice exists in permanently shadowed areas in the south polar region of the Moon.

Previous estimates have put significant amounts of water on the Moon, which would be a huge boon to lunar settlement.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Cutting Launch Costs

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, says his company plans to cut the cost of accessing space partly by reducing the cost of a rocket's first stage.  He argues a big part of the overall cost of a rocket is the first stage, so cutting that will reduce launch prices.  The company's experimental Grasshopper program aims to develop reusable first stages.

Musk also said that he founded SpaceX with the ultimate goal of planting a human colony on Mars, and that remains the ultimate goal.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Mars Rat

The Curiosity rover has done some wonderful work on Mars already, and it's still going strong,  Among its achievements is providing data strongly suggesting Mars could have supported life billions of years ago.  If that is confirmed-- and especially if Martian fossils are found-- it will be one of the truly great scientific discoveries.

So, what is the Internet going wild over?  An image taken by Curiosity in which some people claim to see a rat, or a squirrel, on the surface of Mars.  Proponents of this view say its either a real Martian or a rodent NASA secretly delivered to Mars to see how long it survived.

The attention that claim is received is in fact an indictment of the American educational system-- insofar as the craze is American based-- and especially of the understanding of science.  That's not only unfortunate, but dangerous.  Modern society is increasingly based on science and technology.  To make good public policy decisions, the electorate needs a basic grasp of science and the universe we inhabit.  A large percentage of people seem to lack that grasp.